Back in a Motown frame of mind today. To which the obvious question is, “Wait – you mean you’re sometimes out of a Motown frame of mind?”
There are those who’ll tell you that Tracks of My Tears is the greatest song ever to come out of Motown. Rolling Stone declared as much earlier this year, placing it top of the list despite stiff, stiff competition from all those other songs we all remember, from Reach Out, I’ll Be There, to What’s Goin’ On, My Girl, You Can’t Hurry Love, Heard it Through the Grapevine, and, well, you know the litany. Interestingly, it says here, they put Papa Was A Rolling Stone, a recent Song of the Day, at #2 – talk about a tough call. As with all such lists, you could probably write the titles of the top 15 or 20 on slips of paper, pull them out of a hat, and still come up with a thoroughly defensible ranking, so no need to get too dogmatic about Smokey’s #1 status here, but there’s no denying the sheer, wrenching power of this emotionally honest, utterly un-macho ode to abject heartbreak. Written in the form of a confession to his lost love, the song conjures an almost operatic mental tableau, as the narrator, spotting his ex across the room at some party, drops his jovial facade, turns to the audience, and sings his heartsick aria – a theme he revisited later in the scintillating Tears of a Clown (#10 on the RS list) in which he references Pagliacci. The lyrics, true pop poetry, took Robinson months to write, as he struggled to say something new about an old, old story, and they didn’t start to come together until the lines so take a good look at my face / you’ll see my smile looks out of place came to him. Why, though, would his smile seem so false, though only if you took a close look? Staring in the mirror one morning, he thought what if you cried so long, and so hard, that you could actually see lines left behind, like footprints? The implication is that no matter when you look at him they’ll probably be there, because he probably just staunched the tears again. It’s the waterworks, off and on, off and on, all day long, every damned day.
The story goes that Pete Townshend was so impressed by Smokey’s artful use of the rather unmusical word “substitute” in a pop lyric (though she may be cute, she’s just a substitute, ‘cuz you’re the permanent one ) that he resolved to take up the challenge and write his own song around it (though nothing about the Who’s Substitute was apt to betray its inspiration to the geezers back in Shepherd’s Bush).
Surprisingly, given how gloriously it flirts with melodic perfection, the music came along more easily, with a mighty assist from Miracles guitarist Marv Tarplin, who supplied those gorgeous, sinuous, sorrowful opening licks that are so crucial in setting the stage – surely one of the best, most evocative openings of any pop song of the era, on a par with the introduction to Here There and Everywhere. Tarplin originally had a melody in mind too, which he based, believe it or not, on Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song (Day-O), but obviously Smokey and the band must have kicked it around a while before it arrived where it ended up – Calypso, this ain’t.
As always, the Funk Brothers are back there supplying their own special groove, and extra instrumentalists were brought in from the Detroit Symphony to fill out the sound. You gotta figure that sometimes it was kind of crowded down there in the basement at 2648 W Grand Blvd.
BONUS TRACK! Linda Rondstadt’s version! Linda always could pick ’em. Aretha covered it too, which speaks volumes.